Thursday, December 30, 2010
December 30, 2010: Divorced from Reality?
One of my central goals in starting this blog was that I would engage directly not only with American things that we have forgotten or ignored, but also and just as significantly with narratives that have become commonplace or agreed-upon (as much as any can be in a nation as big and diverse as ours). After all, such narratives are, to my mind, almost by default overly simplistic, depend on eliding or at least minimizing other crucial stories or voices, and generally make it harder for us to remember and understand the complexities of who and what we have been, are, and could be. One of the most agreed-upon of those narratives, at least when it comes to our contemporary moment, is that divorce has become much more common and accepted in our current national culture than it had ever been in the past, and this one might seem impossible for me to try to revise; although statistics about marriage and divorce in prior centuries are likely far from accurate (and while, relatedly, many more marriages might have ended without legal divorce and thus without record in those earlier eras), there are no existing measures by which it would be possible for me to argue with the “more common” part of that narrative, since the percentage of marriages that end in divorce has been far higher over the last few decades than at any other measured moment in our history.
But “more accepted,” well, that’s where I think things get a bit complicated. That’s at least as central a part of the existing narratives, the idea that divorce used to be frowned upon, was considered a last resort at best; whether the person advancing that narrative wants to see the change as a relatively positive thing (related to women having more rights and freedoms, to more awareness of abuse, etc), a relatively negative thing (caused by the excessive freedoms of the 60s and 70s, linked to a decline in religious faith in America, etc), or just to assess more objectively the causes and effects of the shift, virtually every argument about divorce relies centrally on the “more accepted” part of the narrative. And maybe that part’s accurate too, but it’s a lot more of an analytical position than a fact, and a position that has definitely been contested—most overtly and thoroughly by Glenda Riley, whose Divorce: An American Tradition (1991) goes to great and pretty convincing lengths to argue that “American divorce has a long and venerable history,” one dating back to the Puritans, and thus to develop the case that “the institution of American divorce was vital, and growing, long before late twentieth-century Americans carried it to its current state.” Riley is careful not to look past the definite differences in laws and practices in each of the historical moments that she surveys, but does provide an overall and important counter-argument to any facile assertion about how Americans “used to feel” about divorce; any subsequent argument for that position which doesn’t grapple with hers seems to me clearly to be accepting the narrative without adequate investigation or analysis.
If we leave aside for a moment the question of whether divorce is more accepted now than it has ever been, and simply acknowledge Riley’s ultimate point, that in one form or another it has been a part of American society from its origins, that move frees us to examine different moments and cases, as well as different representations and images, of divorce throughout our history. Perhaps not surprisingly, one of the founding and most central voices of American literary realism, William Dean Howells, grappled with the issue in an impressive early novel, A Modern Instance (1882). Of the many reasons why Instance is well worth our attention and readings, I would highlight two distinct and even contrasting ones, both related to American realism’s overarching objectives and elements. On the one hand, Howells’ construction of realistic and deeply human characters was never more successful than in this novel, and the result is a truly multi-dimensional and ultimately heart-breaking picture of the dissolution of a once-happy marriage between two good and earnest people trying their best to make their personal and professional lives together work. But on the other hand, his narrator (who, like many realistic narrators, has clear and particular views of the society and issues about which he’s writing) cannot resist making some final (somewhat implicit, but certainly present) judgments about what has happened to those characters and why it has happened; and, interestingly enough, his direct connection of the marriage’s downfall to troubling elements of “modern” society (circa 1882) feels very similar to many current critiques about the elements of late 20th- and early 21st-century American society that have made (in this view) divorce so prevalent and accepted in our own time.
It’s nearly impossible to think about an issue like divorce without seeking to analyze, and then almost inevitably to judge, causes and effects in one way or another, and I don’t blame either Howells or any other social and cultural historian or critic for their efforts in that vein. But as Riley’s book helps us to see, one key is to make sure that we’re developing those analyses as accurately and with as much complexity—and in as earnest conversation with prior such analyses—as possible. And as Howells’ book most definitely highlights, it’s worth remembering that every divorce, far from being a simple statistic, represents a difficult and unhappy situation for (at least) two individual and multi-dimensional identities and lives. More tomorrow, a special New Year’s Eve post on both one of the most important events in my past and some of my plans for this blog in 2011.
PS. Two links to start with:
1) The full text of A Modern Instance: http://www.fullbooks.com/A-Modern-Instance.html
2) Google book of Divorce: An American Tradition: http://books.google.com/books?id=FzxZ2YgfD_0C&printsec=frontcover&dq=divorce+an+american+tradition&source=bl&ots=otYoti8l8h&sig=PhTtZN2rOqCFOlWgZwmIlvvcKcw&hl=en&ei=674aTdPmC8L98AaC4YG7Dg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=4&ved=0CCsQ6AEwAw#v=onepage&q&f=false